Continuing our series charting City’s journey from Division Three to Three Times Premier League Champions, we take a look at our second season back in the top flight. The blues had left Maine Road, their home of 80 years and taken residence in the City of Manchester Stadium, which was built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. After a ninth place finish last season, optimism was in the air, but City being City would soon see to that.
Before the league season started, the blues entertained European giants Barcelona for the first ever match at COMS. Barca were not prepared to roll over for the blues in their new stadium and fielded players such as Ronaldinho, Michael Reiziger, Xavi, Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars amongst others. But City were not ready to lose in front of their own fans for the first game and Nicolas Anelka gave the blues the lead 10 minutes before half time. Saviola equalised for Barca, but City were not to be denied a first victory and City fan Trevor Sinclair score the winner on 67 minutes. It was a morale-boosting win for the blues, but would also prove to be a false dawn at the new ground.
The first match saw the blues face European opposition, and before the draw was made, City fans had their passports out, ready to fly to some sun-kissed destination to watch the blues play and have a bit of a holiday while they were at it. But on 14th August 2003, those passports were put back in the draw for next time as City hosted Welsh side TNS. A 5-0 home win saw the blues barely get out of first gear, especially as they faced Charlton at The Valley again on the opening day of the season.
The first away game brought home the points as City cruised to a 3-0 win, before the first league match at COMS saw Portsmouth as the visitors. Surely an opening victory in the league? Not quite as a first half goal for Pompey was finally wiped out in the 90th minute. Not quite the home start the blues wanted. City travelled to Blackburn two days later and took the lead in the fourth minute through a long range free-kick from Michael Tarnat. Rovers levelled a minute before the break but City re-took the lead on 59 minutes through Joey Barton. The blues defensive frailties showed again, as two minutes later, Rovers equalised again. But City scored the winner with three minutes remaining through Nicolas Anelka. Seven points from nine games buoyed the blues as Arsenal visited COMS next.
But first, the blues had that European trip to the exotic and sun-kissed city of Cardiff to deal with and came away with a 2-0 win, securing a 7-0 aggregate victory. Three days later, Arsenal came to town. An own goal in the 10th minute gave the blues the lead, but as usual, Arsenal ruined the City party and equalised three minutes after the break. And with 18 minutes remaining, Freddie Ljungberg gave Arsenal the points to leave City still winless in the league in their new ground. Despite that defeat, the blues still sat fourth in the league, just five points behind leaders Arsenal.
It wouldn’t last.
September started well with a 4-1 win over Aston Villa at COMS, Nicolas Anelka grabbing a hat-trick as the blues came back from 1-0 down at the break. A trip to Fulham could have seen another three points when Anelka gave City the lead three minutes after the break, but two goals in six minutes saw Fulham go in front. It took a last minute goal from Paolo Wanchope to rescue a point for the blues. City again had to come from behind in the UEFA Cup this time to beat Lokeren 3-2 at COMS before September ended with a 0-0 draw at home to Spurs. City dropped to fifth in the league, behind Arsenal, Chelsea, United and Birmingham. Yes, you read that right…Birmingham!
October began with a 1-0 defeat at Wolves, which was quickly forgotten as the blues won 1-0 in Lokeren to progress in the UEFA Cup. The blues then thumped local rivals Bolton 6-2 at COMS, with Shaun Wright-Phillips managing to get himself sent off with the score at 4-2. City fans should have savoured that win; it was the last at home for quite a while. City lost 1-0 at Chelsea, before beating QPR 3-0 at Loftus Road in the League Cup. Robbie Fowler and Paolo Wanchope were both on the scoresheet in City’s last league win until February as the blues won 2-0 at Southampton.
Time for the passports to come out, and after Wales and Belgium, the blues were surely set for an exotic destination this time. Maybe not as Polish side Groclin Grodzisk arrived at COMS and went home with an away goal in a 1-1 draw. Newly promoted Leicester arrived at COMS and walked away with a 3-0 win, former blue Paul Dickov scoring the second from the penalty spot and City lost by the same scoreline at Newcastle two weeks later.
City visited Groclin for the UEFA Cup second leg, hoping for one away goal that could send them through. Although they kept a clean sheet they also failed to score and Groclin went through on the away goals rule. The blues then lost 1-0 at home to Middlesbrough as November ended miserably. From fifth place, City had dropped to ninth and worse still, Birmingham were still above them.
The blues were dumped out of the League Cup at White Hart Lane as Spurs marched onwards. If only we could get revenge for that loss at some point in the future. This was followed by a 0-0 draw at Everton as City’s dismal form continued. Derby day at Old Trafford saw the blues lose 3-1 and the final game before Christmas ended in a dire 1-1 draw at home to Leeds. On Boxing Day, City travelled to Birmingham. The blues had a fairly decent record at St Andrews, which looked like increasing when Robbie Fowler gave them the lead on 14 minutes. But City were the masters of clutching defeat from the jaws of victory and conceded an equaliser nine minutes from time. Not content with that, they then allowed the home to win it with three minutes remaining.
In the final game of the year, City again threw away the lead, this time at home to Liverpool. 1-0 up after thirty minutes, 2-1 down with 10 minutes to go before Robbie Fowler equalised against his former club. City finished the year in 13th place, just three points above Spurs, yes you read that right as well, in the relegation zone.
2004 did not really get any better. Leicester arrived at COMS in the FA Cup and twice took the lead, only for City to peg them back and take the tie to a replay. A 1-1 draw at home to Charlton was followed with a 4-2 defeat at Portsmouth. City’s winless league run now extended to ten games, with six of those ending in defeat. A 3-1 win at Leicester in the FA Cup set up a home tie against Spurs. City laboured to another draw, this time 1-1 at home to Blackburn before the televised FA Cup tie. Nicolas Anelka gave the blues the lead, only for Spurs to level midway through the second half. Jon Macken then missed a glorious chance to win the tie but fired wide. ‘He’ll not get another chance like that,’ said the fans. Really?
February started with a regular 2-1 defeat at Arsenal before the blues travelled to White Hart Lane for the FA Cup Fourth Round replay. The reward for the winner was a fifth round tie at Old Trafford to play Manchester United. With the incentive of a Manchester Derby right in front of them, did the team really need any more motivation?
Well as it turned out, they needed three goals for Spurs to motivate them. Ledley King gave Spurs the lead after just two minutes, before Robbie Keane made it 2-0 on 19. Anelka went off with an injury before Christian Ziege made it 3-0 with a spectacular free kick. As the half time whistle blew, Joey Barton thought being 3-0 down at half time wasn’t challenging enough. Barton questioned the free kick award with the referee, who told the midfielder plenty of times to go away or get sent off. Barton ignored him and was shown the red card. 3-0 down, 1 man down, the blues were staring down the barrel.
But during half time, the entire team were replaced by hungry, passionate footballers, eager to play for the shirt. They looked the same players, sounded the same but had different attitudes. So when Sylvain Distin scored three minutes into the second half, the blues fans started dreaming. Could the pull this off? Arni Arason in the City goal then pulled off a remarkable double save. He tipped a Ziege free kick onto the crossbar, then managed to scramble across goal to stop Gus Poyet goal bound headed rebound.
And when Paul Bosvelt’s deflected shot found the back of the Spurs net with 21 minutes remaining, City fans would have been forgiven for believing it would end 3-2. It’s the hope that kills the fans. So when Shaun Wright-Phillips ran through to make it 3-3, despair turned to delight in the City end, while the opposite happened to the Spurs fans. Ten minutes to go, could either team find a winner? Spurs were looking deflated and City were buoyant. In the last minute, the ball found its way to Michael Tarnat on the left wing, who sent a perfect cross into the box to where Jon Macken was waiting. Macken caught it brilliantly and the ball nestled into the far corner to send the visiting supporters wild with glee. From 3-0 down to 4-3 winners, City’s name was surely on the cup this year.
Encouraged by that incredible comeback, City faced Birmingham at home and drew 0-0. So much for hope. That was followed by an expected 2-1 defeat at Anfield with City unable to reproduce their victory from the previous season. The blues then travelled to Old Trafford and the FA Cup fifth round tie, believing they could actually win the cup this year. City promptly lost 4-2 to the ten men of United, which ended all hopes of a first FA Cup final since 1969.
Back to league action and, after 14 league matches without a win, which incorporated eight defeats and seven draws, the blues finally recorded a win. Before the match, City were fourth from bottom and not only were Birmingham still above them, but pretty much everyone else too. Bolton still took the lead, but two goals from Robbie Fowler and a Bolton own goal gave the blues a desperately needed three points. The blues then battered Chelsea at COMS, but still lost 1-0, before hosting United at home. City lead 2-1 at the break, but added another two in the second half to win the first COMS derby 4-1. But a 2-1 defeat at Leeds, was followed with a 0-0 draw at home to Fulham. Alarm bells were ringing. City ended March just three points above the relegation zone with eight games remaining.
April saw the blues fail to win again, drawing four and losing one. City needed an 82nd minute equaliser at Villa Park to scrape a 1-1 draw, then went 2-0 down at home to wolves, before Anelka and Antoine Sibierski levelled. Wolves then re-took the lead with 12 minutes to go, but Shaun Wright-Phillips rescued a point by scoring in the last minute. City drew 1-1 at White Hart Lane, then lost 3-1 at home to Southampton, before allowing Leicester to level Michael Tarnat opener to again draw 1-1. Two wins in twenty four matches was relegation form, yet they still managed to stay ahead of the chasing three below them and remain three points clear.
Three games left as they entered May, starting with a home game against Newcastle. Paolo Wanchope scored the only goal as the blues won 1-0, and that game all but secured City’s survival. A 2-1 loss at Middlesbrough didn’t do any harm as the bleus were safe, but City were now playing for league position. Everton arrived at COMS, just one place and one point above City. The blues decided to turn in their best performance and thump the Toffees 5-1, with City 3-0 up at half time. The result saw City finish in 16th place, one ahead of Everton, two behind Spurs and six behind Birmingham. Quite what the obsession with Birmingham in this article was I really don’t know!
City once again flirted with relegation, how many more times could they do this to the fans?